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Palaeoartist's Handbook: Recreating prehistoric animals in art

Palaeoartist's Handbook: Recreating prehistoric animals in art

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Palaeoartist's Handbook: Recreating prehistoric animals in art

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Aug 23, 2018


Extinct worlds live again in palaeoart: artworks of fossil animals, plants and environments carefully reconstructed from palaeontological and geological data. Such artworks are widespread in popular culture, appearing in documentaries, museums, books and magazines, and inspiring depictions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals in cinema. This book outlines how fossil animals and environments can be reconstructed from their fossils, explaining how palaeoartists overcome gaps in fossil data and predict 'soft-tissue' anatomies no longer present around fossil bones. It goes on to show how science and art can meet to produce compelling, interesting takes on ancient worlds, and it explores the goals and limitations of this popular but rarely discussed art genre. Multiple chapters with dozens of illustrations of fossil animal reconstruction, with specific guidance on fossil amphibians, mammals and their fossil relatives, and a myriad of fossil reptiles (including dinosaurs). Explores how best to present diverse fossil animal forms in art - how best to convey size, proportion and motion in landscapes without familiar reference points. Explains essential techniques for the aspiring palaeoartists, from understanding geological time and evolutionary relationships to rebuilding skeletons and muscles. Suggests where and how to gather reliable sources of data for palaeoartworks. Includes a history of palaeoart, outlining the full evolution of the medium from ancient times to the modern day. Examines stylistic variation in palaeoart. Showcases diverse artworks from world-leading contemporary palaeoartists. Palaeoartistry is a popular but rarely discussed art genre. This new book outlines how fossil animals and environments can be reconstructed from their fossils. Of great interest to everyone interested in palaeoartistry, dinosaurs, natural history and fossils. Superbly illustrated with 195 colour images. Dr Mark P Witton is an author, palaeontological artist and researcher whose palaeoartworks have featured in numerous research papers, television shows, museums and art galleries.
Lançado em:
Aug 23, 2018

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Palaeoartist's Handbook - Mark P. Witton


1An Introduction to Palaeoart

‘ The ordinary public cannot learn much by merely gazing at skeletons set up in museums. One longs to cover their nakedness with flesh and skin, and to see them as they were when they walked this earth’.


Most people are aware that palaeontologists, the scientists who study extinct life, sometimes work with artists to produce works of art featuring ancient species and landscapes. The details of this process are mostly murky in the public sphere however, being rarely discussed outside of specialist venues and of seemingly little interest compared to finished illustrations, paintings, sculptures or animations of fossil creatures. In fact, there is a whole discipline for this form of artistry, replete with its own specialist knowledge base, skill sets, recognized artists, and a long history, all dedicated to the recreation of extinct animals, plants and their landscapes in illustration and scupture. This discipline has been variably named over the last two centuries, but is best known today as ‘palaeoart’ (Fig. 1.1).

Fig. 1.1 The Cretaceous dromaeosaur Microraptor gui restored eating a fish (Jinanichthys). Every detail of this painting is based on fossil data, including the plants and environment, the depicted behaviour, and even the colour of the Microraptor, making it a supreme example of the genre known as ‘palaeoart.’ (E. Willoughby)

The terms ‘palaeoart’ (sometimes spelt ‘paleoart’ – this reflects the American-English spelling ‘paleontology’ instead of the English spelling ‘palaeontology’) and ‘palaeoartist’ were created by celebrated palaeoartist Mark Hallett in his 1987 article The Scientific Approach of the Art of Bringing Dinosaurs Back to Life. The term is a portmanteau of ‘palaeontological art’, palaeontology being the scientific study of extinct life and fossils. Somewhat confusingly, ‘palaeoart’ is also used in archaeological literature to refer to artistic creations by prehistoric people. An alternative term for art of reconstructed fossil animals, ‘palaeontography’, has been coined by another artist, John Conway, and might offer a solution to this confusion. ‘Palaeontography’ is used in some circles, although ‘palaeoart’ remains the dominant term by far and will be used throughout this book.

Fig. 1.2 The sea dragons as they lived, a classic palaeoartwork from 1840. (R. Martin)

While the discipline of palaeoart was only recently named, its history extends as far back as palaeontological science itself (Fig. 1.2). The first ‘modern’ piece of palaeoart – a sketched restoration of Pterodactylus antiquus, a Jurassic flying reptile – dates to 1800 and was produced for private correspondence between scholars. In the next half century, palaeoart entered scientific literature, was then used as an educational device for students, then to educate the public, and eventually as the basis for merchandising opportunities. Initially practised by scholars themselves, natural history artists began to enter the employment of scientists to facilitate the production of grander and more technically accomplished artworks early in palaeoart history. This relationship between scientists and artists continues today. We can thus essentially see the origins of our modern palaeoart industry – a tool for scientific, educational and commercial application – dating back to the 1850s, over 160 years ago. In that time palaeoart has undergone several movements and reinventions, shown a steady increase in popularity, and is now recognized as one of the most important assets in the popularization of palaeontology and scientific outreach.

Fig. 1.3 Bait Ball. Unnamed ichthyosaurs chase thousands of Thrissops into a bait ball, and cause panicked Trachyteuthis belemnites and Pectinatites ammonites to flee. Marine scenes have a long history in palaeoart, and represent some of its most evocative artworks. (B. Nicholls)

The skills and knowledge required to practise palaeoartistry take a long time to attain. It requires a great amount of scientific knowledge to understand data presented by a fossil specimen, the environment it lived in, and how unpreserved anatomies (muscles, skin) can be rationalized from fossil data. Equally important are the skills of a natural history artist, such as being able to produce realistic scenes of the natural world, to arrange interesting compositions, and predict how light and shadow would play out on alien, ancient forms (Fig. 1.3). A growing body of books, websites and exhibitions showcase palaeoart, but the process behind these reconstructions remains largely confined to relatively obscure or specialist publication venues, often written in technical language that challenges lay audiences.

This book attempts to outline this process in a detailed but understandable manner. This is not a ‘how to draw dinosaurs’ guide where prehistoric animals are broken down into geometric shapes for easy illustration, but a discourse on how artists and researchers can read fossil remains to obtain scientifically credible understanding of their life appearance and behaviour, and translate these into attractive, informative artworks. We will cover the goals and limitations of palaeoart, the history of the discipline, the methods employed to reconstruct the ancient tissues and life appearances of long-dead animals, look at conventions of depicting these creatures in restored ancient landscapes, and finally outline aspects of working in the palaeoart industry today. Because producing an artwork is only part of the palaeoart process, it is hoped that this content will also be of interest to those who commission and advise on palaeoart: consultants, exhibition designers and other palaeoart patrons have their own ‘best practices’ too.

Objectives and aims of palaeoartistry

The drive to produce palaeoart seems to act at a fairly primal, subconscious level. Much like some of us feel a need to capture landscapes and fauna in natural history art, looking at fossils makes some of us want to rationalize and predict the likely life appearance of these long extinct creatures. The exact cause behind drives is probably unimportant: it may be enough to admit that nature is fascinating and beautiful, that we enjoy expressing our admiration of it in art, and that art helps us communicate our ideas and interpretations of the world with others. It is important, however, to discuss exactly what we can hope to achieve in palaeoart, what its main applications are, and where its limitations lie.

Defining a genre of art is never easy, but it’s clear that not all artwork involving fossils can be considered palaeoartworks. We might broadly diagnose palaeoart as requiring three essential elements: 1) being beholden to scientific data; 2) involving a restorative component to fill in missing yet essential biological data; and, of course, 3) relating to extinct subject matter such as ancient landscapes, animals and plants. We can thus rule out technical illustrations of fossil specimens as palaeoart, as they might depict components of fossil organisms, and they might be scientifically-informed, but they lack a restorative element. A skeletal restoration or mounted skeleton of a fossil creature might be classed as palaeoart however, as they involve reconstructing damaged or missing bones, inferring posture and sometimes predicting a soft tissue outline. They do not, of course, attempt to show living animals as we would see them in life, and some may argue that prevents them being ‘true’ palaeoart. Whether they are classifiable as palaeoart or not, they are clearly a related art form and their production is an important step in the palaeoartistic process.

Fig. 1.4 Not all reconstructions of fossil animals are equally ‘accurate’ or credible: the availability of fossil data and our depth of research determines how restorable different species are.

Palaeoartistry is not science, but science-informed art. There is a large scientific component to palaeoart production, but the overwhelming majority of fossil animals cannot be restored without extrapolation, prediction and – more often than we like to admit – some degree of speculation (Fig. 1.4). It is important that we remain as evidence-led as possible however, and one of the most critical goals of palaeoart is accurately portraying elements of ancient subjects which we can be sure of: aspects like animal size, their basic proportions, known (or reliably inferred) aspects of their soft tissue anatomy, their contemporary fauna, flora and habitats, and so on. When data runs dry, we do not take the approach of ‘anything goes’: we must use reasoned extrapolation and informed speculation to plug the gaps necessary to bring our work to completion. The moment we start taking an ‘anything goes’ attitude to recreating fossil life, it ceases to be palaeoart, and it becomes palaeontologically-inspired art.

Fig. 1.5 Triceratops horridus, restored as understood in 2017. Giant scales, a face covered in a thick cornified sheath and whirling horns are not typically depicted on this species, but are suggested by contemporary data and interpretations. As science moves on, so does palaeoart. (M. Witton)

We should ask ourselves what, specifically, are we restoring in palaeoart: the actual ‘truth’ of ancient worlds, or hypotheses about the life appearance and palaeobiology of our subject species? Generally speaking, palaeoartistry is seen to pursue ‘accurate’ renditions of ancient species, seeking one ‘true’ visage of an ancient species. Our artwork is judged against its conformity to scientific thought, and described as ‘accurate’ or ‘inaccurate’ based on its adherence to contemporary palaeontological hypotheses. But is ‘accuracy’ what we’re really after in palaeoartistry? In reality, what is considered ‘accurate’ is in a constant state of flux within palaeontological science (Fig. 1.5). As evidenced by palaeoartworks themselves, we have sometimes dramatically altered our perceptions of the appearances and lifestyles of ancient organisms. Moreover, science is not a linear process where a single concept always takes pole position as the ‘most accurate’ interpretation of a given issue. Scientific progress is messy and nonlinear, with our knowledge of a given topic branching, reversing, ceasing, reviving, and revising as it goes along. A united consensus on what is ‘accurate’ will exist on some topics, while opinion may be divided over a few hypotheses on other subjects, or else a field may be poorly understood and open to many interpretations. The idea that palaeoart can always reflect a single, truly ‘accurate’ idea is naïve to the scientific process, and implies that our reconstructions can be thoroughly tested against fossil data. This is also false because so much of the data required to comprehensively reconstruct fossil subjects are now lost to time.

Palaeoartistry may be thus be better described as the process of illustrating credible contemporary interpretations of prehistoric animals, where testable aspects accord with fossil data and non-testable aspects are based on well-researched inference. Our primary goal and guiding thought should be the creation of defensible and likely interpretations of ancient life, and we should not pretend that we are able to portray definitive versions of fossil animals. Because our data are always improving, science is always shifting the goalposts of what is probable and most of our artworks will be superseded in time. Our work records the history of palaeontological thinking, synthesizing opinions on the anatomy, lifestyles and habitat preferences of ancient animals that were contemporary to our generation of palaeontological science. But palaeoartists are not beholden to scientists for improving our understanding of ancient life. Through careful study of fossils and anatomy, artists can also move us closer to depicting genuine realities of ancient life, as has been demonstrated by several researching palaeoartists in the last two centuries.

This view is not meant to be pessimistic or disparaging, however. Our ability to interpret life appearance is always improving and an increasingly science-led approach to palaeoart means we are following the right paths to ever more credible restorations, even if there is still some way to go. If we need encouragement, the history of palaeoart is a fantastic record of how far we have already come.

Applications of palaeoart

Palaeoartworks feature in a variety of scientific and popular outlets. In what we might consider its oldest and most traditional application, palaeoart appears in scientific literature to illustrate the mechanics of a hypothesis or summarize the results of a research paper. Skeletal reconstructions and restorations of new species are especially common palaeoartworks in scientific literature. Such arrangements have fostered a long-held mutualistic relationship between scientists and palaeoartists, with ideas crossing each way between these parties. The process of producing palaeoart can be informative to science and a number of artists have made observations on the anatomy of fossil organisms that are relevant to understanding their palaeobiology. This shouldn’t be surprising: palaeoartists must understand anatomy to do their jobs well, and they may be the first individuals to reconstruct the proportions of fossil organisms in detail. They can thus sometimes make determinations about the extent of musculature or morphology of ancient creatures which have otherwise gone unnoticed to their partner scientists, especially if those scientists have expertise in areas unrelated to anatomy. Moreover, understanding the masses and centres of balance in ancient animals is reliant on some degree of soft-tissue restoration, and palaeoartists are often very skilled at this. A number of individuals, such as Mauricio Antón, Gregory S. Paul and Robert Bakker, have made contributions to scientific literature thanks to the application of palaeoartistic methodologies.

Palaeoart is widely used as a tool for scientific outreach and public education. As a visually arresting medium which communicates palaeobiological hypotheses across language barriers and educational levels, few sciences can boast such a powerful means to convey research findings. Palaeontologists and educators capitalize on its potential fully. Permanent and temporary museum exhibits – including rare palaeoart galleries – showcase palaeoart prominently, and virtually all palaeontological public relations exercises feature palaeoart somewhere. The success of outreach campaigns is often correlated with the strength of its artwork, as these provide obvious ‘hooks’ through which media outlets can grab attention and convey the outreach story. The impact of outreach-related palaeoart is often detectable long after the initial press interest is over as those artworks become inspiration and reference points for later works. Impact of another kind – scientific recruitment – is also traceable back to palaeoart: many palaeontologists can follow their interest in fossil life back to attention-grasping palaeoartworks seen in their youth.

Fig. 1.6 Rebecca Groom’s Palaeoplushies – plush toys based on prehistoric animals – bridge the otherwise largely empty void between high-quality palaeoart and palaeontological merchandise. Though somewhat stylized to suit the demands of a plush toy, each is produced with close attention to extinct animal anatomy. Clockwise from top left: Ornithocheirus, Tylosaurus and Velociraptor. (R. Groom)

A final application of palaeoart is to palaeontology-themed products: toys, books, educational software, video games, documentary programmes and blockbuster movies. These are perhaps more palaeoart-reliant than they are indebted to fossil specimens or scientific studies because they make most use of fully-restored fossil animals, not their fossil remains or reconstructed skeletons (Fig. 1.6). This ‘mass media’ palaeoart probably accounts for the majority of palaeoart produced today, although most of these products have little or no involvement from individuals that we might consider genuine palaeoartists, as well as a very relaxed – or even non-existent – attitude to scientific credibility.

Palaeoart as a basis for merchandise

The idea of merchandising prehistoric animals is not new, having been around since at least the 1830s and 1850s (see Chapter 2), but the modern age has taken the manufacture and marketing of palaeontology-themed products to an unprecedented level. Most of the artwork produced for this purpose – from the creature designs for films, TV shows and games, to the illustrations of popular books – is not executed by palaeoartists or with detailed consultation of scientific literature. Rather, the prioritizing of speed and economy in merchandise production leaves little time for careful research or a step-wise reconstruction processes that characterizes true palaeoartistry. Under these conditions, it is easier and quicker to reference existing palaeoart than it is to create original work. This practice sees many fossil organisms become stereotyped in their portrayal (see Chapter 3) and leads to erroneous and outdated ideas remaining prevalent in popular culture for years or decades after science has moved on. The appearance of prehistoric animals might be embellished for many products to enhance their tonal suitability or boost audience appeal. These facts mean that the majority of palaeontologically-themed merchandise only loosely meets one of our criteria for palaeoartistry – being beholden to scientific data – and we might not consider such works ‘true’ palaeoart. Rather, they are derivative of science-based palaeoartworks, moulding existing reconstructions to suit the budget, audience demands and popular appeal of the associated product.

Nowhere are the liberties with prehistoric animal depictions made more obvious than in Hollywood films. For many, these have produced the ‘definitive’ versions of prehistoric animals, but even seemingly credible examples, like the stop-motion creations of Ray Harryhausen, or the Jurassic Park dinosaurs designed by Stan Winston studios, were ultimately beholden to aesthetic decisions or technical limitations, rather than scientific evidence. Harryhausen has made no secret that many of his prehistoric animals were enhanced in one way or another and that many were hybrids of different species. Speaking of his choice to give his flying reptiles bat-like wings, he has said:

‘I was once told by a five-year-old that I knew nothing about pteranodons or pterodactyls because they don’t really have bat wings! Well, I know they don’t. They should have had huge pieces of skin stretched from the top of their legs out beyond their claws. But what I had to think about was how these creatures of the air would work cinematically when I was animating them … so I used a certain amount of cinematic license and gave them what I saw as more dramatic wings… In effect, we tried to find a compromise between strict scientific accuracy and the need to achieve certain cinematic effects, and I believe we did the right thing. It gave them a fantasy element and after all we weren’t making pictures for palaeontologists…’


Similarly, the famous and highly influential dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park series bear anatomies conflicting with fossil data, many of which were deliberately introduced to enhance attributes like size or visual impact. For example, the head of the Tyrannosaurus was made to look more ferocious with the addition of prominent, vaulted ridges over the eyes as well as larger, highly visible teeth, and feathers and filaments continue to be absent from the dinosaurs in this series – save for a token effort in the third film – despite piles of dinosaur fossils accumulating over the last two decades which show these structures. This selective use of fossil data likely reflects the requirements of canon, brand-familiarity and the marketability of prehistoric animals as intimidating and awe-inspiring creatures, rather than actual animals adapted for mundane behaviours like keeping warm or hiding from predators. True palaeoartists are less concerned with marketability or the creation of pleasing aesthetics: we have to follow scientific evidence to wherever it takes us, even if the resultant reconstruction is not what we expect or desire. This is a fundamental philosophical difference between the art produced by ‘true’ palaeoartists and those only concerned with making saleable merchandise.

The blurred line between true palaeoart and its merchandised equivalent is a point of frustration for many scientists, artists and educators. There is nothing wrong with designing creatures strongly influenced by those that existed in Deep Time, nor is it a crime that palaeontologically-themed products are often designed for entertainment, not education. But an issue arises in that these selectively-referenced, anatomically-embellished creatures are often recognizable enough to their real-life counterparts that many laymen assume they are scientifically-credible representations of fossil animals. The application of real scientific names to these creations, the promotion of these products alongside real facts about these animals, and even their endorsement by some palaeontologists only blurs this line further. The effect of this is that merchandising grown from palaeoart has much greater sway over public opinion than artworks produced with genuine scientific credibility. For educators and researchers hoping to promote new ideas about prehistoric life, this is a problem: the proliferation of outdated or flawed views of the past mean that the educational springboard offered by these products is offset against the need to deconstruct mistruths about ancient animal appearance and behaviour.

Fig. 1.7 Trilobite Dingle. Palaeozoic invertebrates – crinoids, an orthocone, graptolite, a gastropod, brachiopods and trilobites – are legitimate palaeoart subjects, but rarely explored by artists. (B. Nicholls)

The obvious biases of palaeoart

The potential topics of palaeoartworks is an enormous list: literally hundreds of thousands of species are known to have existed on Earth before the modern day (Fig. 1.7). But if palaeoartworks accurately reflected the relative abundances of fossil types in the geological record, we would largely associate the discipline with images of marine invertebrates – mostly shellfish, certain arthropods, corals and other colonial organisms, and microscopic species. In actuality, most palaeoartists focus on rarer, but more spectacular and exotic fossil species. Without doubt, non-avian dinosaurs are the commonest subjects of palaeoartworks, with predatory species being the most popular. Other groups of charismatic tetrapods (backboned animals with, or ancestrally with, four limbs) form the majority of other works, including the Mesozoic flying reptiles (pterosaurs), the marine reptiles (a variety of swimming lineages, including ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and mosasaurs) and giant fossil mammals.

Why does palaeoartistic output ignore so many groups, including those which have much better fossil records than the likes of dinosaurs or mammals? There are likely several, intertwined factors contributing to this. The first is a relatively pragmatic one: the availability of information. Animals like dinosaurs enjoy high levels of public exposure and accessing the information required to restore them is comparatively easy. The same cannot be said for many other fossil groups, which can only be researched through relatively inaccessible and jargon-heavy technical literature. Moreover, the research focus of different palaeontological fields emphasizes different aspects of their subject species, and many subsets of fossil sciences are simply not interested in reconstructing life appearance. It can be surprisingly difficult to know what the basic soft tissue anatomy of some fossil invertebrates looked like because their soft tissues are only given brief or highly diagrammatic coverage by scientists, these aspects being of less interest than their utility for dating rocks, determining palaeoclimates and so on. Researchers of some fossil vertebrates like dinosaurs, however, tend to be much more interested in reconstructing life appearance and lifestyle, and communicate these aspects more readily in their work.

A second factor is restorability. Some fossil animals – such as graptolites, the Ediacaran biota, certain species from the Cambrian period – are essentially uninterpretable as living animals as their soft tissues and relationships to living species remain mysterious. It’s unsurprising that these species are largely ignored by artists because rendering them is more an exercise in speculation than science-led palaeoartistry. We tend to favour species where we can create reasonable approximations of their ancient form.

Fig. 1.8 Why are dinosaurs so prevalent in palaeoart? Perhaps a unique combination of anatomical characteristics and marketability accounts for their success.

Fig. 1.9 Dorygnathus banthensis fish over Jurassic Europe, one is jealous. Stylized palaeoart of this kind is a growing subgenre, ‘augmenting’ anatomical details and palaeontological data rather than ignoring it. (J . Egerkrans)

A third factor may be that some species are simply more charismatic than others (Fig. 1.8). It is human nature to be impressed by attributes such as large size and exotic anatomy, and it is probably no coincidence that our favourite palaeoart subjects tend to be those which demonstrate these attributes. Creatures such as the first snakes, frogs or mammals, or extinct insects and clams, are scientifically fascinating but probably looked very similar to organisms around today. There’s relatively little ‘need’ to restore them because their living relatives are close enough analogues to their appearance and behaviour. This cannot be said for creatures like non-avian dinosaurs or pterosaurs however, which present wholly extinct and now unrepresented body plans. But while we are drawn to unfamiliar subjects, we also tend to prefer those which are readily interpretable. Dinosaurs and other mainstays of palaeoart are sufficiently different from modern animals to be interesting, but not so different that they defy easy understanding to non-experts (Fig. 1.9). You don’t need a PhD to appreciate Tyrannosaurus as a giant bulldozer of a predator, whereas Cambrian invertebrates or unusual Triassic reptiles confound even experts when it comes to life appearance and behaviour. Perhaps this interpretive challenge is a barrier to palaeoartists looking to create reliable takes on fossil species.

Around these points we may find an explanation for why palaeoartistry is relatively biased towards certain species. Simply put, dinosaurs and other commonly depicted taxa present ‘optimal’ attributes for palaeoartists: they appeal to human curiosity with ‘high impact’ anatomy; are different enough to be interesting without being alienating; are known from sufficient fossil data detail to be restorable, and are studied by experts who are interested in topics relevant to life appearance. All this considered, it is unsurprising that a few animal groups dominate palaeoart. There are conversations to be had about whether artists and outreach organizers would do well to feature lesser known species from time to time, and certainly some artists do actively pursue artwork of animals lacking wider exposure.

Why we need to care about palaeoart

Palaeoart is not just a hobby for palaeontology enthusiasts or cultural outgrowth of research on fossil organisms: it is also an important element of palaeontological science. It has a role and influence in paleontological science, has its own history, trends and fashions, and is especially important for communicating with the public. We might view the latter as its most important role. Studies of prehistoric life receive relatively high popular interest and this places palaeontology and palaeoart on the front line of scientific outreach. The study and portrayal of fossil animals are the means through which many learn about the scientific process, the concept of Deep Time, the changing nature of the planet and biosphere, of evolution and natural selection, the history of our own species and even our place in the wider universe. Well-produced palaeoart allows us to make connections between the past and the modern age, as well as to visualize the natural and physical

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